A new American musical
April 26, 2012 1:18 p.m.
Trey Anastasio, musician and co-composer, "Hands on a Hardbody"
Amanda Green, lyricist and co-composer, "Hands on a Hardbody"
Related Story: Trey Anastasio Talks Musicals And Hardbodies
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. What would you do to get a brand spanking new shiny hardbody truck absolutely free? Would you lineup before dawn? Answer a question on the radio? Or would you stand with one hand on the truck for as long as it took to win it? That last endurance test is the heart of a new musical opening at the La Jolla playhouse. Hands on a hardbody is based on an award winning documentary about a real contest held in an auto dealership in Texas. The new musical has brought together a rich and varied group of talented collaborators. Let's hard with a clip. It's called it's a human drama thing.
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CAVANAUGH: It's my pleasure to introduce the team creating the music for the piece. Amanda Green who's written the lyrics for several Broadway shows. Welcome to the program.
GREEN: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: And joining us, Trey Anastasio, leader of the legendary band, Phish, he brought the music. Welcome to the program.
ANASTASIO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You were both maybe a bit wary of writing songs for performers who would spend a great deal of their time standing next to a truck? I'm wondering, Trey, did that pose like an imagination problem for you for writing music?
ANASTASIO: Not really. It actually -- it feels like a limitation.
ANASTASIO: But it ends up being liberated in a strange way. I love the fact that the people are so close together. I love the fact that they can't sleep. And that so much time goes by. And I've always been interested in the communication between music and ritual, and music and exhaustion. That interests me.
GREEN: And they also all have such a strong need for the truck, they had big emotions.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about some of the characters. This is a really character-based musical. And your music is really character-based Uisn't it?
GREEN: Yes. Some of the characters are as I said, real be people who we went down and met with. Several of the people in the contest. They are -- there's a man who fell off an oil rig in the '60s and had to take an early retirement. A guy named Ronald from Louisiana just over the border. Of there's a woman who's a housecleaner, a woman who's deeply religious, although we realize going down to east Texas, that a lot of people are deeply religious, but she's -- the lord has told her this is what she was meant to do, to get a truck. So the lord is with her, she's listening to her which you were music the entire time and getting the spirit of the lord throughout the contest. So it's a really comfortable group of people<.>
CAVANAUGH: It would seem to me you got to know why these people want this truck so much. So why do they want it so much? To do this for hours on end?
ANASTASIO: Well, I'd say they need it.
ANASTASIO: And for various reasons. Of one of the characters talks about wanting to use it to -- trucks make money, cars don't make money. You can use it to work, haul things around. They have various reasons.
GREEN: That is one of the things that drew us to it. Nobody is doing it for sport. They desperately need it to either sell it, get money to pay off loans, to make payments, to start a business, to drive their kids to school, to be able to start a business. I mean -- oh, and one guy wants to use the money -- sell it and go back to school. So it's not sport. Desperate need.
CAVANAUGH: Reading about this, it has a sense of desperation about it.
GREEN: Very much so.
CAVANAUGH: And it reminds me of those marathon dance contests.
ANASTASIO: Yes, that's come up.
GREEN: We did. And we felt about these people, they are desperate, but their spirit and enthusiasm, are and the hope they put in this contest is a lifeline, and a way to maybe get themselves a piece of the American pie, you know, a piece of the dream. And their humor. When you watch the documentary, it starts out, it's a little absurd. Of and they say this is kind of crazy. And then you end up so moved by what they go through and how they end up helping each other, and they form a community. And people go through profound changes on that truck.
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine. Now, it was surprising to me that since this is a play about everybody standing around a truck, you have a choreographer, a brilliant choreographer.
GREEN: Benjamin bill pied, yes.
ANASTASIO: It's been incredible watching him, and working with him. Talking about the truck as a limitation, both Neil and Benjamin were so interested in the idea that you're going to have these people on stage stuck within a foot of each other around this truck, and watching Benjamin come up with solutions for the problem, motion around the truck, that's what appealed to him. Interestingly, I found that the limitation has given -- for everyone involved in the creative team, the limitation has been liberating. And I feel like it's been harder to deal with the people who aren't on the truck. There are some people in the pit and what not.
GREEN: Yes, yeah.
ANASTASIO: I had a teacher who used to say art lives by limitation. And I think we've seen that in action.
GREEN: Yeah, it was the first time we saw a number that he had put together and choreographed with these people around the truck, and just their body language, and the way the truck moves, and they move the truck, there's no mechanisms. It's very low-tech. It raised the hair on my arms. And he's also dealing -- there's no ballet core here. The age range is -- of the characters is from late '60s to early '20s. Nobody did a dance audition. We have really fine actors who are incredible singers and can move. Some of them -- and Benjamin has been great about dealing with the strengths of our cast. We feel have an incredible dancer who just happens to be an incredible dancer. So Benjamin found a way for him to move in the show. It's been very exciting watching this creativity burst forth from the severe limitations of the plot.
CAVANAUGH: Trey, as a rock star, are as the leader of Phish, people might be surprised to learn that you are a big fan of musicals.
ANASTASIO: I am a huge fan of musical theatre. And I've been going to musicals my entire life. Grew up in New Jersey and had a mother who was an enormous fan. So gypsy, Sweeney Todd, chorus line, all of them. And I grew up with a coup of west side story in my basement that I played ten thousand times.
CAVANAUGH: When you're a kid, you're a jet all the way!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ANASTASIO: It's true. So this has been a real thrill, an absolute thrill for me, dream of a lifetime. Especially the collaborative nature of the rehearsals, six days I week locked in a room with phenomenally talented actors, a dramatic director who is coming at this from a different angle. Then you about talk about Benjamin, discovering that one of our cast members is a dancer, Benjamin started trying to utilize them, and the next thing you know they're asking for us to write more music for him to dance to, and we're running into the next room with a piano. It's a thrill.
CAVANAUGH: It's just like, kids, let's put on a show!
GREEN: It is. I have to give a shout out to Trey too, this is his first show and he's just bumped in with both feet. We went to him and said can we please have some dance music in -- we text each other earlier, 6:15 the next morning saying, I got it! And he came in and taught it to the musicians, and our actor was dancing to it by 10:15.
CAVANAUGH: You have written 16 songs for this musical?
GREEN: 20 or something like that.
CAVANAUGH: Whoa! That's an output.
ANASTASIO: Two thing, first of all, when I came on, Amanda who is a gifted songwriter, already had her foot through the door on a lot of these songs, which was I think there's few of them that are still in the play exactly as Amanda had written them. Some of them we extrapolated on, and other ones we sort of started from scratch. It's been all manner of different ways of working. But I do think that one thing, and I'll speak for you, and you can chime in, but I think one of the things that excited both of us was the idea of new, original songs born of this play as opposed to -- there's plenty of great musicals that have been written with preexisting music. But I know for me, I have such a -- a cherish the American stream, the great American songbook that came out of musical theatre. And the idea of writing songs that were fully structured songs with B actions and A sections that could be sung outside of the play.
CAVANAUGH: Stand alone.
ANASTASIO: Stand-alone songs was very important to me.
GREEN: Definitely. We wanted this -- it doesn't have recite atI have been. But we wanted songs, a lot of people are three minutes and 33 seconds. Some are longer. It was also very important to both of us that they surf the plot and reveal character, and not just be, like, hey, there's a cool song.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I must mention the fact that you're the daughter of Broadway royalty, of Adolf green.
GREEN: And Phyllis Newman.
CAVANAUGH: Yes. I asked Trey, it was kind of a weird juxtaposition for some people to see him involved in musical theatre. But for you, did you feel you ever had any other choice? It's kind of like a tradition in your family.
GREEN: It's definitely a family tradition. I started out -- I wanted to be an actress. And then I did not start out wanting to write musicals although I grew up with them and loved them. I wanted to write pop song, and I spent a lot of time in Nashville writing with country writers down there. Of mostly because I fell in love with legal Lovett. He wrote those wry, contemporary songs, and that's the kind of stuff I wanted to do. And someone just mentioned this musical theatre writing program that BMI has in New York City, and I entered it, and as soon as I started writing theatre songs I was, like, oh,ing of course. What was I thinking?
GREEN: This is where I belong. So it was -- I did feel very much at home when I finally got there.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering how much the location of Texas factored into the writing of this music. How did you use the location?
GREEN: As we said, we used it, but we weren't limited by it because we did not write a country score. I love, and I know Trey loves, all sorts of Texas music. But as he said earlier, it's American music. And some of these characters love ZZ Top or Lucinda Williams. We were inspired. I listen to a lot of Texas music. But we didn't write a country score, per se.
ANASTASIO: Write. It's in there.
GREEN: Yeah. It's in there, but it's not nominated by it. It's really just a rock score.
ANASTASIO: Amanda and I locked ourselves in a room, and I will always cherish this experience, for weeks on end, and next to the Hudson river, and worked on these songs, and it was so thrilling, I learned so much to be with a musical, every gesture is dictated by the story. This is not what I'm used to. The songs can be absurd, and what I'm used to writing, or they can have long motifs just because they're cool, that doesn't work in musical theatre. It's ticketed by the story -- -- dictated by the stories of the characters, and the moods of the characters, and the personalities of the characters. A character holds out a note for a certain length because that's who that character is. Again, that would seem like a limitation, but in a certain way, it was very liberating.
CAVANAUGH: I must ask you about how the truck becomes part of the music.
GREEN: Well, it's -- I mean, it's there. It's the gigantic elephant in the room.
ANASTASIO: I think she might be asking a more specific question.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: It becomes an instrument in itself!
GREEN: Oh, that! Do you want to take that?
ANASTASIO: Yeah, well, I -- it does become part of the music. I was worried about giving it away. This came up in the last interview, but it's easier with you sitting there.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ANASTASIO: This is the only interview! There was no other!
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you the question again. How about that? I understand that the truck that everybody is standing around --
ANASTASIO: Yes, I'll tell you. There is a moment where after there is a character who gets giddy from exhaustion, and each character responds differently to exhaustion. One responds by breaking into howls of laughter, and that actually happens in the documentary. And then in her giddiness, the other people start laughing too, then they start drumming on the truck.
GREEN: It's wonderful, it was a wonderful idea of Tray's. He was inspired, and just said we had this number where they one by one sort of join in, and jump onto her giddiness as a we of, like, release for themselves. And Trey, was, like, I think we got a truck here, and it just sounds so cool when you hit on this part, and honk, and beep the horn. And he's made it into a truly magical moment.
CAVANAUGH: Can't stop him from improvising
ANASTASIO: My best friend had a 1975 Camero, and we used to drum on that thing. And that was a lot -- we would go out, park it, and drum on this car. It had big, heavy doors, which sounded incredible. Boom, boom! So cars sound good. Cars are fun to drum on.
[ LAUGHTER ]
I want to thank you both. The co-writers of the score of the new musical, hands on a hardbody. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
ANASTASIO: Thank you.
GREEN: Thank you.